Modern cities aren’t just growing in population, they’re driving change faster than any nation, state or province. The smallest unit of government has the biggest impact. And we’re not just talking about making changes that benefit the citizens of that city but can have effects that reach across the globe.
Here’s why cities are the biggest catalysts of change today and will become even more impactful in the coming decades.
Outdated governmental systems
As political theorist Benjamin Barber points out in this TED Talk, the governmental systems in place for most developed countries were created during a time well before the technological age.
The United States government was developed in the 1700s, and Barber argues that it hasn’t really changed all that much, and certainly not fast enough for today’s rapidly changing economic and technologic landscape. There was no way for the founding fathers to have foreseen the kind of disruption we see today.
On a national scale, Barber argues it becomes very difficult, nearly impossible, to institute change at the pace needed to keep up with technology and rising global challenges.
While the United States as a whole has trouble reacting to climate change in meaningful ways, the city of San Francisco already has half its public transportation fleet running on zero emissions and plans to be completely emission-free by 2020. Denmark isn’t carbon neutral, but Copenhagen hopes to be within a decade and is already ahead of schedule.
How can a city do what a nation can’t? The answer is: access. At the local level citizens have more access to leadership than within any other unit of government, and leaders have the power to get things done.
According to a recent survey, local government leadership identified Town Halls, planning meetings and social media as very effective ways of engaging with the public. Imagine that kind of engagement from a senator. And even when senators do participate in Town Halls, turning feedback into actionable items is much more difficult when managing it on a broader scale.
Mayors and city officials are able to respond to challenges much more quickly, and as citizens of the cities they’re helping to manage, understand the needs of their constituents intimately.
Cities will face humanitarian and logistical challenges unlike anything we’ve ever seen as urban growth continues.
From transportation to clean water, managing growing populations will require accelerated innovation and integration of emerging technology to solve the coming challenges. And make no mistake, these are really big problems, and solving them could have ripple effects on a global scale.
Take transportation: As city populations swell, the challenge of simply getting a human body from point A to point B becomes more and more difficult. Anyone trying to make it home on I-25 at rush hour has seen firsthand how growing urban populations attribute to congestion.
But organizations like Transportation for America (T4America) are building city alliances that bring innovative solutions to transportation. With the City of Centennial and Denver South Economic Development Partnership being selected as participants in T4America’s Smart Cities Collaborative, the solutions that work in Denver will be able to be utilized in other cities with similar problems, and vice versa.
Cities are catalysts of change and innovation because they have to be. Not only is it easier for leaders to collaborate at the municipal level, it’s required to ensure the safety and stability of the city. Whenever the biggest challenges arise, human innovation tends to rise with it — cities are clear examples of this.
As Greg Satell, writing for Forbes, says, innovation requires more than just smart people: “Different people, working on different things, colliding together in unexpected ways is what brings about important new ideas.”
Diversity and collaboration are what drive innovation, and cities are ripe with opportunities for both. And, it turns out, places with the most diversity tend to perform the best economically.
According to a study from 2011, “diversity spurs economic development and homogeneity slows it down.” The authors of the study even argue that part of what allowed the New World’s economy to grow so quickly and so much faster than anywhere else in the world was due to its openness to other cultures.
In these areas, you will run into people that look different, that eat different foods, speak different languages and have different opinions about anything you can imagine. And they must all work together to ensure one another are safe, healthy and happy.
Whether you agree with someone’s political stance matters very little when you both need a reliable form of transportation to get to the hospital.
Through the interplay of different ideas, cities also attract diverse talent interested in accelerating innovation. When you can simultaneously meet someone’s desire for authentic ethnic restaurants along with something like ample recreational opportunities, you develop a workforce that is keyed into the driving forces of innovation.
Thinking beyond borders
Technology has broken down global barriers. Cryptocurrency makes it possible to conduct business with anyone around the world instantly. Video chat and high-speed internet connections bring the world to your living room, with every bit of information you ever needed at your fingertips.
While borders certainly still exist politically, in terms of technology they have been blown to smithereens. Cities are well equipped to take the lead in the new transnational economy, and not just the heavyweights. Cities with populations from 150,000 all the way up to over 10 million will be the driving forces of the economy in the coming years, according to McKinsey & Company.
And they’ll do it through collaboration, sustainable practices and an eye towards creating a better life for their citizens. Sounds like a good approach to us.